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Volume 3, Issue 1
Spring 2007:

Introduction to All That Matters

Peggy Rambach

Cell 2 Soul. 2007 Spring; 3(1):a6

Peggy Rambach - All That Matters: Memoir from the Wellness Community of Greater Boston

At the first session of the Wellness Community's Memoir Writing Workshop, the word "cold" came up. How cold it was in the examination rooms. How cold it was outside of Radiology. "I wanted to tell everyone to wear warm-up suits," said Christine Micklitsch of her less experienced waiting-room companions. Cold tables, cold instruments against warm skin. Room thermostats set low for the optimal performance of the machines inside them and only johnnys to protect the people who would go inside the machines. The johnny: a garment that was universally reviled. "Who designed those things, anyway?" someone said, and everyone laughed.

The room was filled with a long and polished conference table, light from the two walls of windows that looked out over trees and rocks and the Charles River, and a group of people whose shared experience and purpose generated a camaraderie that guaranteed that cold would never be part of this experience. Hard work — yes. Some frustration, it's true. One student did confess to groaning and temporarily abandoning (or maybe throwing) her manuscript across her living room when she saw how thoroughly I had covered it in roller-ball green.

But the participants in this writing class were not going to experience the emotional catharsis that comes from writing in free-form. No. If they were going to experience any kind of benefit, therapeutic or otherwise, it was going to come from a strict adherence to discipline. Mine was the Boot Camp, you might say, of support center writing workshops. But this was only because we were writing in the literary form called memoir, and because we were writing for an audience. And that is hard.

Here at the Wellness Community was a roomful of people who shared an intimate knowledge of how life is inclined to distribute loss, pain, hardship and heartache in the manner of chicken feed. You'd think, given their raw material and enthusiasm, the actual writing would be a cinch. But the more immediate and deep a story's emotional significance, the more challenged I am to show the writer how to write it well.

Writing anything feels like jumping off a boat into the middle of the ocean, so of course you want to grab onto something that promises to keep you afloat. Well, chronology always appears to be just the thing. The linear approach. After all, our lives are stories that unfold in the manner of a timeline: we're born, we live, we die. So why not begin all stories at the beginning and just record one part of it to the next, to the next, until there are no more parts to record. But unfortunately what you get is something about as interesting to read as a Palm Pilot calendar; the experience so recorded might be good for posterity, but not for meaning.

So if chronology is out, then what? Well, that's where all the green ink comes in. You chop. You add. You rearrange. And you begin at the beginning again and again and again to find a path to the single moment, the sole image that will, when rendered with honesty and specificity, open up to reveal to both writer and reader a great surprise: the moment when the personal truth becomes universal.

Christine Micklitch's hat, for instance, becomes her, who she was before she had cancer, and who she will never be again. The feel of breeze in a place Pat Connolly never felt it before hints of new discoveries in unexpected ways; Patricia Griecci's inexplicable preference for the color pink becomes the first sign of her emergence into a life she never wanted, but nevertheless must live. The touch of Elaine Brilanstone's mother's hand on her hair, the feel of Harriet Berman's daughter in her arms, hands stained with blackberry juice in Sazi Marden's memoir of her childhood, and the taste of a cookie that Cheryl Sisel eats with her grandchildren — every image speaks of more. A wedding charades as a funeral in Debbie Hemley's memoir, "Veteran." And in the opening of a piece that Leo Sicuranza wrote in the only class he could attend, a hospital sign that says "Patients" shows how we should never be defined.

And though these writers might have thought that the drama and gravity, the beauty and personal significance of their experiences were reasons enough to make them worth writing down, they were to discover the real one by doing the hard work of the writing itself, by embarking on what writing really is: a search.

I was privileged to be the leader of their expedition.

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